CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | On Brian Williams, and being the story
NBC News anchor Brian Williams had a good story, but it wasn't enough. He wanted to be the story. Eric Crawford reflects on the changing demands of journalism, and the damage that has been done.
Friday, February 13th 2015, 9:14 am EST by
Friday, February 13th 2015, 12:58 pm EST
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This is destined to be, even at its outset, one of those muddled, middle-of-the-night missives that tries to gather truth in its arms and settle it down to sleep for a few hours.
From 1992 to 2005, I didn't have to use much more than a functional sports memory in the writing of my news stories for various newspapers, including The Courier-Journal. My opinion did not belong there, and though I had written opinion pieces for other papers I'd worked for, I was a young writer who hadn't found any kind of editorial “voice,” and they were harmless and, it turns out, fairly colorless pieces.
This is a column about working in the media, both before the Internet and after. It's a little bit about writing; and a lot about storytelling, both on the page, and on the air.
Brian Williams was good at the latter. Is good at the latter. The (at least temporarily) deposed anchor of the top-rated NBC Nightly News was more than just a great anchor, he had that God-given gift of being likable, of resonating with Americans. Such qualities, I suppose, can be honed and developed. But the essential quality, the bearing on camera, and even more elusive, the ability to connect with a large segment of the public as it sits down at home in the evening, is just there. You either have it or you don't. You can be great without it, but very few today are able to forge their way into that place without something a little more than talent.
Everyone knows Williams' story by now.
“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an R.P.G.,” Williams said, introducing a segment on a sergeant major who, he said, had helped rescue him in Iraq. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”
Except it wasn't. It wasn't shot down. It wasn't on the ground. It wasn't rescued. Williams' arrived in a helicopter 30 to 60 minutes later. At first his story bore no embellishments. Over time, and through various high-profile talk show appearances, it began to grow. It didn't draw criticism, however, until soldiers who had been aboard a helicopter that actually was shot down that day began talking about it on NBC's Facebook page.
Watch out for Facebook.
Later, Williams went on the air and offered a watered-down apology, then when that proved not to be enough, announced he was taking himself off the daily broadcast for several days.
But after that trigger, other Williams stories began to unravel under scrutiny from NBC, and he was suspended for six months.
He was the ratings king of nightly network news, delivering 9.3 million viewers five nights a week. Now begins the debate over whether he should ever return to that chair.
No. He shouldn't.
All journalists make mistakes. You can't help it. And today, we make more than ever because there are fewer editors than ever. When I first went to work for the newspaper in Louisville, a Saturday night sports desk would include as many as eight copy editors, a slot editor, plus two other news editors. Not to mention the guys pasting the paper together back in the composing room. Today, there might be two people in all those positions. It's that way everywhere.
Journalists post straight to the web. They're more rushed and pressed to get stories onto the Internet. They are doing more stories, not fewer. They have video responsibilities.
More than that, there are errors of incompetence. We all have made those mistakes. In my early days in my first newspaper job in Evansville, Ind., I remember writing a season preview about girls high school basketball, and being unable over the course of several days to reach one of the coaches. So I just grabbed a couple of leading scorers from the year before out of some clips and wrote a few quick paragraphs on that team and moved on.
Terrible mistake. Careless. Irresponsible. One of the girls who I wrote was expected to be a returning leader actually had gotten pregnant over the summer and wouldn't be playing at all.
The lessons came hard and heavy then. Never assume. People will notice. No matter how insignificant you think the story or fact is, it's the biggest story of the day to someone. And finally this. When you are putting work in front of the public, the truth is enough. Adding to it doesn't help. Taking from it doesn't satisfy. Over the years, I'd find myself waking up in the middle of the night in a sweat wondering if I had gotten some obscure fact wrong -- then slipping out of bed to check.
For Brian Williams, it wasn't enough to be aboard a helicopter that followed one that had been shot down. It was a better story to be aboard the one that had been shot down. He wanted to tell the better story.
His instinct was right. That helicopter brought down by a rocket propelled grenade was better than the story he could tell. His mistake came in his inability to keep himself out of the story. It was good enough to tell what happened. What created his need to place himself there?
Let me stop for a moment. The demand that the news also make money and entertain created that need. It doesn't excuse it. We ask that these people, these anchors, not only do the job, which is difficult enough, of communicating the news from the studio, but to be in the midst of the news, when possible, and certainly, whenever possible, to be part of the story.
I am more a part of the columns I write than I have ever been. There is a need, implicit in the way people read news today, and what they expect when they read it, that they consume news based as much on who is giving it to them as on what is being given. It's not fair. It just is. As a result, if there's a chance to offer a personal recollection, I offer it. Like, for example, this anecdote:
My father was a columnist at The Courier-Journal for nearly 30 years. His columns that offered personal reflections, memories or opinions were some of the most popular he wrote. He was uneasy writing them. “I don't like to overdo it,” he said. He wanted the people he wrote about to be at the center of what he did.
CBS newsman Charles Kuralt wrote of my dad, “When I first met Byron Crawford, he was reporting SideRoads stories for WHAS-TV in Louisville. I was drawn to him by the fact that his shirttail was hanging partly out. He didn't care as much about how he looked on television; he cared a lot more about the subjects of his stories, the farmers and fiddlers and country store proprietors of rural Kentucky and Indiana. At the time, it was practically unheard of for a television reporter to be more fond of his subjects than of himself, and it is still rare to this day.”
In the flood of recent media news, the death of CBS newsman Bob Simon probably didn't get the attention it should have. Simon won 27 Emmy awards, but was not interested in the glamor of celebrity. He was interested in sitting in the background, and letting his stories speak.
“More and more, we are losing the Bob Simon brand of journalist,” Christina Ruffini wrote for CBS News. “We are losing the men and women who put the premium on the story and not on themselves. They are retiring. They are dying. They are giving in to the pressures and duality of the celebrity newsman and walking away from the values that once made them great.”
Contrast that with what the New York Times' outstanding media critic, David Carr, wrote about Williams.
“We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy,” Carr wrote. “It's a job description that no one can match.”
In the midst of that, in fact, in the flow of it, these are the challenges those of us still in the media must face. To deal with the demands of wholesale and fast-paced changes, while still figuring out a way to maintain the values that ground us and hold the public's trust.
Williams failed. What he did, in my own opinion, was combine the need (some would say the demand) for him to be part of the story with the carelessness and lack of responsibility of a young journalist.
The result was dishonesty on the nation's largest stage. It was the destruction of credibility. It was a breach of contract with the American people.
A colleague remarked to me the other day, politicians lie or bend the truth all the time. If our standard is no higher than that, we're already finished.
Finally, a note about memory. When Vladimir Nabokov wrote his autobiographical memoir “Speak, Memory,” he noted that his intent was less recitation of fact than good literature. When James Frey wrote his memoir of drug addiction and recovery, “A Million Little Pieces,” there was no such acknowledgement. Turns out, the book was more fiction than memoir. What we call things matters a great deal.
Carr, who wrote his own memoir of drug addiction and recovery, said in a recent piece about Williams, “I wrote a book some years back about the nature of memory and the stories we tell ourselves and others. Stories tend to grow over time and, if they are told often enough, they harden into a kind of new truth for the teller. Mr. Williams has been on almost every talk show you can think of and that requires not only a different skill set -- he is a gifted and funny performer -- but stories in abundance. It's useful to note that Mr. Williams initially reported the story fundamentally as it had happened -- although the soldiers on hand say he exaggerated the danger to himself even then -- and over time, as he retold it, he moved into the middle of it, so that the story became something that happened to him. All those one percent enhancements along the way add up and can leave the teller a long way from the truth.”
I fear we're becoming desensitized to the enhancements. They scream at us all day, every day from social media, demanding our attention, demanding that we click on them -- demanding of news reporters, pundits and organizations that they tell stories in such a way that they perform.
I'd be surprised if Williams is the last high-profile figure to fall prey to this. I'd also be surprised if he ever sits behind a network anchor desk again.
This is still journalism. Willfully telling people something that isn't so, just for the purpose of promoting one's own image, or for any purpose, can't be condoned. That it was apparently condoned for so long at NBC is a separate column. One percent at a time may be a slow way to squander credibility, but it is sure.
The willful misleading of the public is more than following a collection of evidence to reach a conclusion that might or might not be right, or even agreed upon by everyone. It's more than the slant you can see any night -- in either direction -- on news programs.
It gets at the heart of what we do. And it is an attack upon it.
POSTSCRIPT: I mentioned Carr several times in this piece, not just because he has always been so compelling and honest in his critique of media today, but because he collapsed in the newsroom at The New York Times and died Thursday night. He was 58, and was as strong a voice of sanity as you could hear on the subject of media in this country. He'll be missed.
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